31 December, 2012

Spanglish and others

The last Spanglish incidents during Christmash holidays have been really fun, and I just didn´t want to miss the oportunity to post them, as these are the kind of things that go with the wind when the kids start growing up so quickly.
- CARPETA: "Mami, estoy jugando con los coches en la CARPETA". Carpet in Spanish is "alfombra", but he didn´t find the word and came up with this, which by the way is a typical false friend among Spanish learners of English!
- COOKANDO?: He comes in the kitchen and stares at me while I prepare lunch. "Papi, qué estás cookando?". Most of his transfers are Spanish sentences with some English adaptation.
- SMALLAR: He couldn´t make a toy fit in another toy... "Papi! it doesn´t fit! SMALLATE! Papi lo quiero SMALLAR!" It took us some time to get this one. He meant "make yourself smaller!" but using the imperative form in Spanish.
Things like these are starting to blossom from time to time and we can´t stop laughing secretly when he doesn´t see us.
Do you have any funny transfers from one language into the other along your kid´s development?

20 December, 2012

The singing boy, bilingual school and return on investment

I´ve many times wondered myself (here, for instance) what impact the bilingual school would have on my boy. Well, yesterday afternoon we had the first clear outcome when he taught us the song he had learnt from his native English teacher. As I mentioned before in some older posts, this year he spends only one session of 2 hours a week with her on Mondays, then some reinforcement session (games, songs and routines) with a non-bilingual teacher on Wednesdays. Yet the exposure is limited, thanks to the OPOL approach that we follow at home, for him it´s just like some other Spanish song, and I think here is where the main difference lies compared to monolingual families.

After observing my nieces and other kids, I know that at this age, kids from monolingual homes attending bilingual schools/day care are facing English words for the very first time at 2-3 years old, so they repeat the sounds they hear, as accurate as they can, but most of the times not realizing the meaning. A popular song like “This is the way we brush our teeth…” sounds like “di iz wea way be bo bo biiii”, and it´s all fine cause the objective at this point is getting them familiarized only with the sounds, tone of voice and melody of the language. In our case the bilingual environment that we have created since the boy was born has made possible that he actually recognizes in the song that they are talking about what we do every night, when we all brush our teeth. He is also showing signs of understanding the whole story in series and movies we watch like Peppa Pig or simple Disney movies, everyday more and more.

So he enjoyed this so much that after singing the new song at home a couple of times, our punk started making his own lines using the structure of the song. We were playing with the cars before bedtime and we accidentally bumped our heads, and I said “Hey man, watch out! You just bumped your head into mine!” and there he went… “Papi! This is the way we bump our heads, we bump our heads…” We were absolutely puzzled. And every day more he is coming up with this kind of things, like “XXX doesn´t like this, NEITHER DOES YYY”. And I´m like “neither does yyy???” I find this structure difficult most of the times because it´s very different from Spanish, and he just got it damn right from scratch. He doesn´t even have to think about it!!! This is also applicable to the order of words when he switches back and forth. He is starting to place everything correctly in each language. I´d say his understanding skills are pretty much at the same level in both languages, and regarding speech, English is walking uphill almost parallel to Spanish, maybe just one little step below.

Going a little bit deeper into the bilingual schools issue, some years ago the chances were scarce, private and therefore extremely expensive. Now that we are starting to count on public and semi-granted ones, with different qualities but improving I believe, bilingualism and opportunities have been popularized. Although this is absolutely fabulous for our new generations, I think many families in Spain deposit all the responsibility of the “bilingual plus” only in the school. I think that if you want to make the most of the system, you have to look at it as a reinforcement to your bilingual approach in your family. Of course this will depend always on the language skills of the parents, but even if they are not competent users it´s also possible to create a positive environment towards the minority language through videos, songs... And if you start from scratch it´s a great opportunity to learn side by side with your children. Kids with no minority language reference outside the school tend to take the second language like an extra subject (sometimes an annoying one if I may say it). Creating an environment where speaking another language is fun and useful makes bilingual things much more enjoyable and likely to happen. With some effort, support and consistency they can achieve great things all by themselves.

So as a summary of this post and a milestone along the way, I can gladly say, with evidence in my ears that bilingualism definitely pays off, the effort is absolutely worth it, and one can see/hear the huge benefits of it as early as 2,5 years. It´s definitely the best investment I´ll ever make in my whole life.

I´d be glad to hear about others´ experiences. Do you have any bilingual options in your school system? What´s your opinion about them? Do they complete your family bilingual strategy? Have you made this “stop and think” exercise about what your families´ return on investment is?

25 November, 2012

Funny glitches

Time does fly! There has been a new boost in our little punk´s vocabulary and construction of sentences in the last 2 months. He uses appropriate terms in the appropriate occasion much more often and he has started to integrate corrections very quickly. He also relates one thing to another, based on previous events, which was less frequent before. Example: “Papi I just fell down LIKE THE MONKEYS” (we sing the song “5 little monkeys jumping on the bed”). He uses this “PAPI/MAMI! -something something-, LIKE -something related-…” structure very often. This occurs in Spanish more frequently than in English, as it´s expected, but transference and parallelisms between the two languages do occur a lot. He also tries to adapt English words into Spanish when he can´t find a Spanish word. The outcome is most of the time hilarious.

He also demands translations of Spanish songs into English and he finds this very amusing, which is a real mind cracker for Papi, who tries his best improvising direct translation that rhyme if possible… Then I have to remember what I just made up because he records it by heart and I know he´ll ask for the exact lyrics in English some other day (big challenge!).

He is more aware of what languages are. He identifies English and Spanish by its name, and we talk about speaking 2 languages and what people do and don´t speak them. I also play with him counting or saying different things in German (I´m far from proficient, just low intermediate), and he finds it really fun too.

Regarding correction strategy, we haven´t changed it along these 2 years. We continue to use a soft approach, that is to say we don´t stop him and say that he is wrong and the right way to say this is XXX… Instead of this we just let him speak and then use the word or expression after him reformulating the same structure or a similar one in the right way, and he understands most of the times immediately what needs to be corrected. Then next time that he uses the same structure he usually gets it right. I think this is because we instinctively use a different tone of voice and pace when we want to focus on something that needs to be corrected.

There are some persistent and very funny bugs that are being really hard to redirect though. For instance, he uses the verb “to give” / “dar” in Spanish in a really strange way. For some unknown reason he adds “TA” before it and then constructs all the grammatical structures placing that particle perfectly. “Te voy a TA dar este coche” / “Mamá me ha TA dado un coche”. Even though we use this verb very often, like in every language as I assume, he stubbornly does this even though we have used it in the right way a moment ago. It´s really funny because this particle doesn´t exist neither in Spanish nor in English, and neither we nor anybody that he has contact with, as far as we know, say that. There are some names also that just don´t go with him. “Víctor” is “Gitor” for him, and that makes conversations so fun.

He is well aware of contracted forms so the “TA” case doesn´t seem to be that he is confusing this with a particle. For example I usually say “I´m gonna give you…” and the like (wanna, gonna, etc, I just can´t help it) and he replies many times with “Papi IS GOING TO give me…”, so it´s clearly not the case. The particle thing happens more in Spanish than English, just as a curiosity.

I take these glitches as part of his development and maybe as a way to reaffirm his personality rather than a speech pathology, but just in case I´ll keep a close eye on this…

What funny glitches have your kids had along the early years? Do you try to correct them or you just go with the flow?

06 November, 2012

Cognitive skills, development and bilingualism

We have had a meeting with our boy´s teacher (kindergarten) to have an in-depth chat about the first months in school. There are 2 main messages that she wanted to share with us:
-       Things we should work on with him:
§  Motor skills: He is slightly behind the average in terms of motor skills, meaning he bumps into things, trips over and falls down more than other same aged kids. There´s nothing to worry about because not all the children develop all their skills at the very same time. That means he is a little bit clumsier than the average, so it´s just a matter of time that he improves these skills, we only have to make sure that he continues to have activities that imply movement, and that´s easy as he doesn´t stand still… ever!
§  Please: He demands things in a very dictatorial style. We need to work on this together with Grandpas. I´m sure though his baby sister will help on this as soon as she arrives. I´m afraid that one way or the other he will perceive that he has to share the center of the universe with another little person.
-       Cognitive skills: He is apparently way beyond the rest of the class in terms of cognitive skills. She gave us some examples that prove that his skills on this area are equivalent to a much older boy. For example, they use a chart with symbols of the different routines that they follow each day until someone comes to pick them up at 5:00pm, so they can understand what´s coming next and have a reference, and some security about what´s going to happen. The teacher says it normally takes the kids half of the school year or the entire course to have this chart down pat. She says he could tell the rest of the class and the teacher what was coming next after only 2 weeks, in 2 languages, so they say they are really impressed. They are working on colors, one each month, so they understand and integrate which things are (let´s say) red in their environment. I certainly didn´t know that they were going to cover this kind of things at his age.  We have by no means trained him on these short of routines, all of the contrary; he has shown a very vivid interest in colors, numbers, and letters since he was as young as 15-16 months old. Now he is 2,5 years old he can easily count up to 20, knows all the colors ,including some that are considered (apparently) tricky, like purple or grey. He also differentiates “dark blue” from “light blue” and all these things he does it in 2 languages.

Actually we have never sat down and thought about it because we didn´t have many references other than cousins, and obviously you don´t conduct an exam every time they get together to compare (so sick!). I don´t believe he is a typical profile of highly gifted individual (Mensa style). Apart from the fact that this is absolutely nothing that we would pursue, I guess that if this were the case he would be doing things like playing the violin and maybe reading faster than us. We just want him to grow happy and healthy, but the fact is that among other 20 same aged little individuals, he´s been reported to be some short of “outlier” in terms of cognitive development. I have also read that sometimes some kids develop earlier in a short period of time but then they slow down the pace and they get balanced within normal parameters according to their age.

I don´t support the idea that bringing up your kids in more than one language will make them automatically smarter than others, as sometimes it might even add more complexity to their lives. I just think it is a way to make them more adaptable and have more opportunities in life, but what if there is a real and direct link between one thing and the other? If this were the case, would that make kids from Belgium, Switzerland or many parts of India automatically smarter than others?
I consider this point really interesting, so this question goes to all of you bringing up your offspring in more than one language:

Have your kids been objectively reported to have any short of advantage compared to same-aged monolingual kids? At what age?
Do you think these differences can be attributed to being raised in more than one language or they only respond to nature?

October Halloween Party: English mode "on"

We have fortunately found a playgroup in Madrid, formed mainly by mixed families (one or the two parents are native speakers of English) and Spanish families with a similar language approach, so I have to admit that I´m more than exited to be able to attend activities in the targeted language, and get the boy exposed to native speakers, as well as lots of children of the same age.
There is at least one activity per month, which is organized by a different committee each time, formed by 4 or 5 families who are in charge of arranging all the details and communicating them to the rest of the group.
The October Committee has organized a wonderful Halloween party last weekend, so we dressed up for the occasion and attended the event, having a whale of a time! There were lots of activities for kids of varied ages, storytelling and lots of yummy things to chew on. Dani was a little bit shy at the beginning, but as time went by he started to interact with kids and adults. I think he didn´t realized about the whole English thing at the beginning, but I can tell by his comments the following days that it caused a very positive impact on him.
We had been talking for weeks about a Halloween party where everyone was going to speak English, and although I think he was a little bit skeptical, he´s been reporting everything that happened, being English an important part of the story. He talks about adults that he met, and kids that he played with in English, even though little communication took place, as he is only 2,5 years old. I think it was a very reaffirming and encouraging experience for all the family. It was also comforting to find other Spanish families (i.e. non-native speakers) with different accents and styles, trying to provide their kids with this wonderful gift which is speaking another language, despite all the mental and non-mental work involved in it. For all this we are really looking forward to attending the next activity. ¿Do you have any playgroups to interact in the targeted language? ¿What impact does it cause in your kids?

Visiting the Fire Department

I happen to have a fireman friend, so as the kid is flipping out lately with all that has to do with trucks, I asked him if we could visit him and have a guided tour to show our little mechanic the guts of the fire department, with a very special focus on the fire engine of course…
He´s been talking about this visit for weeks, so since the moment we got off the car his face said it all. He was exited like never before, eyes open wide in awe, and he could barely stop saying “Papi look! A fire engine, Papi look, a helmet, a water hose!!!!”
They let him see the kitchen, dorms, the bar, the gym and all the facilities. Then we moved outside to see all the equipment, and the vehicles. They even let him ring the bell!! He was absolutely amazed. After this and for about 1 week his favorite bedtime story has been “The Amazing Story of Dani Visiting the Fire Department”, taking the place of Snow White and also The Big Bad Wolf (super hit until now, overall the part of huffing and puffing)… As I was explaining to him all the things we saw during the visit, he reports the whole story in English then translate it into Spanish for Grandpas, so one of the main objectives of the activity was absolutely accomplished!!! Now every time 2 of his little toy cars crash there is an explosion (very educative, yes!!), and the fire engine has to come and put out the fire. Big LOL.

05 October, 2012

What´s in fashion

We adults know and assume we like certain things and not others in general, and that is mainly because we have gone through different experiences that have an impact on our tastes. But what if you hadn´t had the time to go through experiences yet, because you were born just a couple of years ago? Now we see our kid growing so fast, it amazes us how quickly his taste evolves. Sometime it´s difficult to keep up with what´s in fashion at the moment.
This might have an impact when you are trying to foster exposure to the minority language through activities that in your opinion are rich, varied, entertaining, exciting and… and your kid is apparently not much interested in!!!
My boy seemed to love me reading stories to him when he was 10 to 16 months old. We would snuggle together on the sofa, grab a book and see the pictures, and I´d talk about the things that we saw. I had then assumed that it would continue to be like this as the months went by, but of course it wasn’t.
As he grew up, he started to move and explore a lot more, and he´d barely stand sitting on my lap for more than 3 seconds, at least there´s something yummy to chew on...
He´s gone through phases on which his preferences have varied significantly. First he was so much into animals, so much than at 25 months old his vocabulary on the issue was remarkable, but in the last 2-3 months he´s become what I call a “vehicle-centered freak”, since he is absolutely in love with everything related to trucks, cars, bumps, roads, bridges and things of the like.
I was in fact a little shocked the other day when we went through one of his favorite books about animals and he seemed to have forgotten the names of some of the animals he knew quite well months ago. It´s true that the names he had some trouble remembering were those he paid less attention to at that time, but still I felt kind of altered; because I think I tend to take for granted that they only add up knowledge and it stays there. There´s obviously nothing to worry about because we understand it´s all part of the processes he is supposed to go through, but one can´t help but wondering if it´s one´s fault.
After some similar situations I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to making the minority language as fun as possible, it´s much more beneficial to go with the flow. After all it turns out that using that old best-seller about animals as a slope for the tow truck, and talking about who´s got a flat tire works much better than forcing him to go through the book and repeat the name of the animals.
When he is not interested in something he just turns a deaf ear on you and acts like the thing doesn´t go with him, so I´m trying to detect these deafness moments and change the subject to keep the game going.
One of his favorite games now consists in me playing some short of magic trick and hide his ultra-loved Lightning McQueen in different places, then I give him some leads to get to it. This is working very well since he pays so much attention to the leads and I make them gradually more complex and interactive so he gets more vocabulary and talks more using different expressions. The only thing I fear is if I´m saying things right!!! No kidding…
What about you guys? Have your children experienced many phases in their tastes? How do you handle their interests to foster exposure and prompt response in the minority language?

14 September, 2012

The English speakers club

Last night my kid and I were having one of those bedtime conversations, and right before falling asleep he started tapping my head in the dark and said:
-       “Papi! Papi! Can you hear me?”
-       “Yes I hear you, what´s up sweety?”
-       “Yaya (granny) doesn´t speak English”
-       Me in awe: “… you are right, she does not”
-       “Abu (grandpa) doesn´t speak English, Tita (aunty) María yes, she speaks English like you…”.
And he went on and on classifying people by language. It´s funny that as he hasn´t met yet anyone who speaks exclusively English, he put those who can speak at least some English in the English speakers club.
In the last 4 weeks, the structure of his sentences and his fluency have experienced a great improvement, and I think that apart from the normal development is due to 3 main reasons:
-       I´m putting him to sleep almost every night, and he spends around 45min to 1h speaking before he finally falls asleep, that makes an extra hour/day of 1 to 1 exposure talking about what happened during the day (we transfer experiences lived in Spanish into English so he is able to report in English in the future), we sing songs, and I tell him stories on demand. I end up exhaust because this last game requires a good deal of improvisation. It goes like: “Papi, tell me the story of me getting on a train”, and then I go “Once upon a time, there was a boy…”.  

-       We went on holidays for 2 weeks, so that means intensive exposure as I turn myself into the OPOL compliance department. We have played long hours together, most of the time in English. We also visited my father and his wife, who speak both English, not at a native or very fluent level, but they can follow our conversations, so this one has been a big trigger for the little man to start interacting in English with more than one people, and to understand that it makes sense to speak other language because there might be other people to communicate with in that language.

-       Bilingual school: He has started attending preschool classes in a bilingual school. This year will be only 3 hour/week in English, so 3 days a week they spend 1 hour of their daily routines with an English teacher, sometimes native. It´s a pity it´s only this little time and not always a native speakers is guaranteed, but trust me It´s the best you can get in Madrid for an affordable price when it comes to preschool. Next year (3 years old) he´ll start the “official school” and he´ll have 50% English and 50% Spanish, always with native speakers to support conversation.
Although this is the established program, we were at the inauguration of the scholar year last week, which is an even mainly to welcome new families and introduce the basics of how the school works. They put all the kids in one big classroom to play during the presentation, and some English teachers (from grades above) heard us speaking, so I asked them to please speak to him in English if there was some interaction. They were quite amused and surprise as the boy could maintain a light conversation in English, and he understood everything they said. They found our case interesting since I´m not native. I´ve been told there are several cases of children with parents of different backgrounds and native languages in the school. They recognize that in these cases things are much easier as the first big steps have been already taken. Every time they bump into my boy in the playground or in a common area they speak in English and so my kid reports when we talk about “people from school that speak like Papi”, so I must say I´m quite comforted, since one of my worries is the lack of exposure due to my long hours at the office.
Bilingual schools and local policies towards bilingualism are subjects to write tones of pages about, so although this is not the purpose of the blog, let me share some funny news I read recently.
I won´t declare myself as a firm supporter of the right party in Spain, but one of the objectives of Mrs. Esperanza Aguirre, President of the local government (Madrid) that I firmly applaud and support is to transform gradually all the public schools into bilingual ones from preschool, and to declare new ones to build as bilingual from the beginning, so they can directly hire native teachers (with public money). I find this idea a huge step forward in Education and a way to improve dramatically the employability of the new generation of Spaniards, as well as a start to finally topple down some horrible topics that we have insisted in nurturing for decades… Yet there have been voices against these measures. For god´s sake, high quality bilingual schools for free! Who can be against that?? Spaniards of course, these voices are coming mainly from teachers unions and parents associations, arguing that this will favor foreign workers over locals and comments like these have been heard: “what if I have a meeting with my kid´s teacher and I don´t understand anything because I don´t speak English?” or “Less English and more employment!!!” (for Spanish monolingual teachers I understand…).
Sometimes I sadly realize that we have the country that we deserve and that it´s very likely that our topics (“Olé torero”, “sangria”, “siesta”, “mi no entender señorita…”) will follow us to the end of times…

24 August, 2012

Relatives, bilingual schools and some “pearls”

It´s summertime so we are having many get-togethers with our relatives, in particular with our sisters and cousins with same aged kids. Swimming pool, bbq, lunch, dinner, etc… yeah, I´ve put on 5 kg/11 pounds and I don´t want any comments about it… I´ll try to fix that later… Apart from gobbling and slurping, we have shared lots of time with Dani´s cousins (1 boy and 5 girls) 6 in total aged between 1 month and 4.5 years old, and we are having lots of fun. We´ve been able to compare also Dani´s speech development with the others and we´ve observed that he is on the average or even above the rest of his same aged cousins in Spanish, apart from speaking English at about 60%-70% of the level of Spanish.
These get-togethers have been a good field test for the speech pattern in our family, as typical doubts in bilingual environments arose as expected: “Should I continue speaking English to my kid, even when other kids are around and don´t understand anything?”, “What about other adults?”, “Should I speak first in English to my kid and then repeat things in Spanish for the rest of the people?”.
I have opted for a flexible approach given the fact that our relatives support the idea of speaking both languages to our kid, and sometimes they even confess that they wish they could do the same with their kids. I speak only English with him and I usually go on like this when other adults or 2 of his cousins (girls) aged almost 4 and 4.5 years old are around, as they attend bilingual schools. I positively know that they understand me although they answer questions in Spanish even when prompted in English. I think this is mostly because they feel insecure about the language, maybe as a result of not producing any English words out of school. It seems like this turns summer into an English time-off, as they don´t identify the family environment as a place where they can/should speak English. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why kids attending bilingual schools don´t seem to be actually bilingual in Spain, as they don´t have family support or anyone encouraging them to use the language out of the class, or just anyone who actually knows the language. They are getting a passive bilingualism, which hopefully will become active if they use the language as they grow older (summer camps, trips, extra activities with natives). It´s soon yet to know how this country is going to improve in languages at a generational level, as all these bilingual state funded programs have been working only 3-4 years in some of our schools.

Although late (they should´ve done this 30 years ago like Norway or Finland) I think It´s a very positive thing, but I know that in many of the schools teachers are far from native-like, exposure is limited, and plans are poorly implemented. I´d hate seeing this done under the Spanish topic of poor performance. It´s sad but it´s true. I´m Spanish and I feel really ashamed when things like this are on TV.

Not even one of the presidents that we had since democracy started in 1975 has been able to attend an international meeting in English or other language than Spanish during their term of office, while others like Greece, Italy or France do it.
Going back to the family, the other kids that don´t know any English just look at me frowning at times, so I know they are not catching it but they just go with the flow. When I see it´s imperative to switch into Spanish I do it, but then I feel like I have to keep a low profile so my kid´s radar doesn´t detect me, or he´ll start repeating out loud everything I said in Spanish.
We have also observed some translations from Dani to his cousins, as he identifies them as Spanish speakers: “Dani go and show your cousin the wound on your foot”, and there he goes: “Mira N, tengo una pupa en el pie!”, and here is another “pearl” dropped during our way home:
-       Papi: “So Dani, I heard that you took the bus this morning?”
-       Dani: “yes”
-       Papi: “and who were you with when you took the bus?”
-       Dani: “With abu”
-       Papi: “That´s great, and which color was the bus you took?”
-       Dani: “blue” (the public buses in our area are all green)
-       Papi: “Are you sure? All the busses that we usually see around are green”
-       Dani: “It was blue, Papi don´t try to fool me”

Which strategy do you follow when relatives are around and don´t know the language?
Are there any public, semi-public/afordable bilingual programs in the schools where you live? Are these programs truly bilingual?
Any “pearls” from your kids that you want to share?

21 August, 2012

…and when are you going to stop?

"…to stop speaking English to your son", is what my friend Alberto asked me when he knew about our project. This is a question that I had never been asked before all along this bilingual adventure, and it truly made me think a lot. When people hear you speaking in other language to your child or when someone brings up the subject, it´s normal to go through a 3rd grade, but I certainly didn´t see this one coming, and my answer was “I haven´t thought about this yet”.
Like Sarah Jessica Parker said (this doesn´t make me gay, ok? Period), I couldn´t help but wonder… How is this going to be in the future? Once I have established that our communication must be held in English, will there be a time when I´ll have to openly admit to him that I´m not a native speaker of the language and that our purpose is that he gets more opportunities in the future?

Will he come to this conclusion by himself when he is old enough? How getting in contact with native speakers will affect him and how he perceives my non-native discourse? How will the bilingual school fit in the whole picture? He´ll be sharing classes with kids that start from scratch at the age of 3. I bet 99% of them have never heard a word in English and their parents don´t go further than “hello good morning”, so I suppose he´ll feel odd for some time. Will it be “safe” in terms of consistency if (someday) I step into the dark side and speak Spanish to him? Am I worrying/speculating about things that will happen in at least 10 years and therefore breaking all the records in the history of worrywarts? Probably yes, amen to that (who´s with me?)… But I´m afraid this is included in the bilingual parenting kit that they give you when you make this choice, so I guess I won´t be getting a refund…
I have read Mr. George Saunders´ book which I consider one of the bibles of the multilingual literature and he describes his relationship with his sons, always in German at least until they were teenagers. Once I´ve started looking for more, I haven´t been able to find much information about bilingual families with toddlers and kids older than 6 or 7 years old, and if there are some, tracking these experiences as the kids grow older becomes difficult. The documented examples of non-native parents with kids in their teenage years or above are hard to find. If anyone has some guidance, It´ll be much appreciated.
And now the question: Have you thought about the future of your bilingual strategy? Especially those of you that aren´t native speakers; do you have something planned?  

20 August, 2012

Big news, some changes and “the limping wolf”

Big news! There´s a brother/sister for Dani on his/her way. What?, having another baby? Now? With this awful crisis slapping our faces every day? You´re nuts! Hell yeah! If everything goes as planned we´ll be parents again in March 2013.
When things are tough like this country going bankrupt and the European economy shrinking, we tend to rely on the important things of life like your loved ones and the time that you share with them. In our case we are positive about the future, we don´t pursue expensive cars or gigantic flat screens. We know that we could live with less. We have done it before and we would be able to do it again, here or in any other country (preferably one where they speak Spanish, English or German, Chinese is not in the menu yet…).
Now that changes are expected in the short-medium term, we are working to reorient some of the patterns that we have with our little man. We need him to be less dependent on his Mami because she´ll have to pay a lot of attention to the baby soon. The main change we have made is at the moment of going to bed. Now Mami and Papi go to bed with him, then Mami stays with us for some time, then sneaks out to the other room while Papi is telling an amazing story about the trending topic of the day-week. On the first night there were some “Papi, move! Go away! Go and get Mami!” for a while. We have been talking about how tired Mum is and how much she needs to go to sleep and after only 2 days he has assumed very well that he´ll chat only with Papi until he falls asleep every night.
This is having an immediate positive impact on his English. Here are just 2 pearls from these last nights, as an example:
-       It´s raining: He loves the song “it´s raining, it´s pouring, the old man is snoring, he went to bed and he bumped his head and he couldn’t get up in the morning”. He made me sing it like 20 times in a row, and then he said “Papi poor man, he got a bump in the head”. It´s the first time he expresses his own conclusions after observing something in English.  
-       The limping wolf: There is a statue of a wolf without one of his paws in a roundabout near home. He saw the statue and we started talking about the poor wolf, the story that we made up is that he got a wound on the paw and that´s why he couldn´t walk well and he was limping. That day the little man got a little scratch on his foot and after curing it that night he said: “Papi, the wound! It hurts so bad! I have a wound on my foot LIKE THE LIMPING WOLF!!!” I just looked at him in the dark in shock, half LOL, half tremendously glad he is catching things so quickly.
My ME time/our couple time before going to sleep is gone, but I think it´s being very beneficial for his English skills, so I think it´s just temporary and a fair price to pay!!

09 August, 2012

The easiest path

The human being is a lazy animal, let´s face it. Since the ancient times, most of the technological innovations are oriented to make our lives easier, carry less weigh, open things with only one finger, and of course think less.
Is there any wonder that our kids tend to choose the easiest path when it comes to acquiring languages? Nope, keeping things simple seems to be a universal motto.
Now he is 2 years and 3 months old, we have entered a phase in which the half-meter man has developed the ability to get away with things without making the effort of speaking English with his weird Papi.
Since the last 3 or 4 weeks, and coinciding with a more than evident step forward with his Spanish, our typical conversations go as follow:
-       Boy: “Papi, ven aquí y toca el agua, ¡está fría!”
-       Me: “Ok, so you want me to go there and touch the water? Do you think it´s cold?”
-       Boy: “yes”.

Another one:
-       Boy: “Mira Papi, mira qué rápido voy con la bici”
-       Me: “what?... you want me to see how fast you go riding your bike, don´t you?
-       Boy: “yes”.
And that´s it. The structure starts with the boy telling me something in Spanish, then I reformulate it in English (he understands completely), and then he says “yes” which means “that´s what I wanted to say but it came out much easier in Spanish, and as long as I hear you speaking to everyone but me in Spanish, I assume you can understand me and there is no need to go on with this farce”.
My father always says that children are just shorter, not dumb and he is so right. So I have tried to talk to him about speaking like Papi, and how fun it is, and that he has to speak to me like I speak to him because otherwise Papi has trouble understanding, but immediately after he goes on in Spanish again, and I think it´s because he can´t help it so far. He is also evidencing awareness as he repeats sentences that I say in Spanish to other relatives, and then he looks at me like saying “you were speaking Spanish, you know that, don´t you?”, so yes, we are at that point.
Once I have clearly detected this new phase I´m trying 2 strategies to get back on track:
1.    No English, no response but being flexible, without going too far. There is a perceivable difference in his reactions if he just wants to show you something or he is actually asking you to do something. In the first case if you ask him to say it in English, you get a weaker response.
-       Boy: “Papi, mira qué grande es ese camión!”
-       Me: “What?”
-       Boy: “the truck!...”
-       Me: “I see, there´s a big truck right there, did you see how big the wheels are? By the way, what color is this truck? I can´t see it.”
-       Boy: “White!”
-       Me: “Wow, I see it now, so we have just passed a big white truck, I hope it doesn´t get a flat tire…”
If the same conversation had been held in Spanish, his interventions would have been complete sentences.
In the second case, when he wants me to do something, he switches much more easily and tries harder to say things right. If I detect that he is not using English due to laziness, I insist until he gives me some English equivalent, then I proceed and try to prompt more sentences. If I see that he is trying but he can´t find the word, then I give him a lead, so he can continue and then I reinforce the sentence and talk about it.
2.    Mum is joining playtime in English. I read once that same actions have a much higher impact on toddlers if they come from mum, than from dad. It´s been documented that if the mother is the one encouraging the minority language, the possibilities of achieving competent bilingualism are higher. Mum is more than fine with English, but I understand that having to go mentally over every sentence that you are about to say is really exhausting. Anyway she has promised to work more on it, and we have had the first positive outcome this weekend. If she switches into English, yet the communication is not that natural, the boy initiates many more interactions in English all by himself. So the impact here is clear.

I´ve read that this phase is a very common one, but I can´t help but wonder if we are doing things right, if I could do more to encourage bilingualism or if this whole thing will work out in the long run. I even guiltily wonder myself if this is sometimes turning into a personal challenge (ME fulfilling MY objective) more than providing more opportunities to my boy in a natural way, which is in the end what all this is about. I´ve been trying to look for the source of this sudden worrywart crisis, and I have come to the conclusion that his recent huge improvements in Spanish are making me feel like our connection is somehow lagging behind.
Anyway, what we do have clear is that we are not giving up, so I guess we´ll try to find our way and see how we navigate the turbulent waters. And yes, he might be stubborn, but so far Papi is still holding the stubbornness gold medal in the family…

31 July, 2012

Co-sleeping, speech development and bilingualism

Most of the times we tend to pay all our attention to the experiences that occur while we are awake, which is absolutely logical given the fact that we are diurnal animals, but scientist and sleep specialist know well that what happens while we sleep or during the process of going to sleep has a deep impact on our lives and the way our babies develop. When it comes to “tucking in” protocols, one can find some extreme views in many cultures, and tons of non-requested advice, mostly when the first baby comes. Even literature can be full of opposite experts. If we go quickly through the Spanish case, you can find supporters of “teaching” the baby how to sleep in a very strict military way (Dr. Estivill), or focusing everything on the needs of the baby at bedtime, being understanding, and in my opinion maybe too permissive in the way they suggest to educate children (Dr. Carlos González, www.dormirsinllorar.com). In our case we as a couple listened to some of our close relative´s advice, then read about the subject and then followed strictly what our guts told us, not paying attention to anything else and so far we are comfortable with it, despite the sleep deprivation that we are going through (mainly my dear wife to be honest). Our method is very close to the second example in terms of needs of the baby, and like everything, with some peculiarities.
Our little boy (2 years and 3 months old now) has spent more or less 15 months in our room, sleeping in a crib right next to our bed, like it was an extension of it, because we removed one of the sides of the crib (they call it moses cradle) .He´s been able to creep up to his Mum´s breasts and serve himself during the night. Breastfeeding is also full of myth and uninformed statements. One can never follow what people or family tells you, even if it´s well-intentioned, otherwise you´d go crazy. I think the best way here again is following your own beliefs and what instinct tells you. Nowadays our little man still clings to Mum´s boobies for a while from time to time.
After the first 15 months we moved him to his own room, but we stay with him until he falls asleep every night. He usually asks us to stay with him, and specially Mum because he loves to fall asleep either next to or even on her, but also wants papi to tell him a story (in English of course), so we do it as long as we are both at home. This is no big deal for us, as many would think, in fact it´s one of the best moments of the day, and he´s slowly but progressively less dependent on Mum to fall sleep, as he did it sucking before and talking now.
Up to this point speech development was not in the picture, but since the last big spurt occurred, bedtime is the moment when he recalls all the events of the day and talks about it. He can easily spend 45min or 1 hour talking before turning in. We have perceived a huge evolution on his speech lately and I believe part of this development is related to these conversations. You can usually hear that he´s integrated a new term in his regular vocabulary after one of those night chats in which the term was frequently used.
In our case, my intervention in the process, and therefore the exposure to the minority language is limited, since after 3 or 4 stories, he kind of falls semi-asleep, and I slither out of the room as quiet as a ninja attacking the enemy town. Many times after 5 or 6 minutes he starts talking again with Mum (in Spanish now, the majority language) for maybe another 20 min before he finally gives in, so exposure to Spanish wins like always…Then Mum either falls asleep with him or she wakes up and comes back to our room. I don´t know if this routine will cause him a trauma or he´ll become a serial killer because we are doing something extremely wrong, but we see this is working quite well for the family so far and we feel it´s the most natural way for us. In case of bilingual families, I think these night dialogs (if they occur) are one of the most powerful tools to reinforce the acquisition of the minority language, overall if Mum is the one speaking it.
I know these type of routines are very personal and very deep-rooted in the culture of every country, and that there are babies that fall fast asleep the moment they touch the sheets, but in our case, forcing him to sleep alone would be not only detrimental for him but a big loss in terms of quality time and speech development, plus we wouldn´t stand being in the next room, while he is crying and calling us.

14 July, 2012

The island of the crystal waters and the frowned faces

Summertime has come and with it our long expected holidays!! We took a week off and flew to one of our lovely Mediterranean islands. This destination happened to have a double objective. The first and obvious one is of course relaxing, lying back on the sand and enjoying the beach with our little baywatch (armbands and all the imaginable equipment on…). The second one has to do with the fact that these islands are absolutely taken over by foreigners. Let´s say the nationalities in a regular vacation resort are distributed as 60% British, 20% German, 10% Nordic countries and Holland, and finally 10% or less Spanish. This means that the language most frequently used in the swimming pool and other common areas is… yes, you guessed, ENGLISH. And not any kind of English, but “parenting English”, swimming pool English, dinner time English… etc.!! I´m used to business terms (I can say “sales went down” in 6 or 7 different ways depending on intensity and length of the fall) but parenting vocabulary is something that I find myself very short of.
In many occasions I´ve checked how to say little details that are natural for me in Spanish but obviously unknown in English. I normally manage to find my way and get an approximated term, but then I always feel that someday he´ll turn and say “Papi, this is another SMASHED potatoes case” (see previous post).
So here I was, with my radar on and ready checking all the words and expressions to keep that naughty British boy from breaking his head against the swimming pool border, ground the girl who deliberately dipped her ice cream in the pool, and so many other examples. I was so glad and relieved to discover that my imperfect English was not that different to what native parents use with their kids, PLUS our little man could interact a few times with other English speaking kids and he seemed to fully understand them!! –British 4 year old to my kid: “would you like to play with me?” (Imagine the “me” part with a thick southern British accent”) and my kid goes: “YES!!”. 
This sounds very nice but after a few days, once the check list had “tan, relax and fun activities” marked up, I couldn’t help but notice some reactions towards our language approach.
I´m used to Spanish people´s reactions when they hear me speaking English to the kid, and more reactions when the half-meter-man answers me back, but I had never had the chance of observing English speakers´ reactions in a social context. I have to say first that I founded British people much less social than my national fellows when it comes to kids and interactions, not only with us but among themselves as well. I mean whenever 2 kids start playing together, we Spanish tend to start chatting friendly about their character, potty training, how well or bad they eat, bla bla bla… We even encourage them to share toys and play with the more number of kids the better.
Please don´t judge me, cause I don´t mean to pigeonhole the entire British population, but what I perceived is that many British parents don´t feel as comfortable when other kids start to interact with theirs. I felt like they were more individualist, not in a bad sense, It´s only that the cultural difference was clearly perceivable.
That being said, I also saw some moms frowning their faces at us when they heard me speaking what they considered (by the look in their eyes) “strange English” to my kid. My accent is not easy to classify since I´m not native, I try not to use the typical dry Spanish accent when speaking English (cutting the end of the words), but yes I tend to use more some short of American pronunciation, so I have to admit that I might sound strange for an English native speaker. I don´t know why but I had the feeling that English speakers would generally understand our bilingual project more than Spanish. I guess I didn´t take into account what I call the “monolingual virus”. British society is as monolingual and self-centered as Spanish, so I think this has something to do with a widespread idea-opinion, either thought or said out loud, which is “why (the hell) are you doing that to your own kid??”.
The thing is that far from discouraging I have worked on an automatic reaction over the last 2 years, consisting in an even stronger conviction that we do what we do because it´s extremely positive for our kid and the discovery that most of the strange or negative reactions come eventually from a lack of culture, or a concealed envy. When it comes to close relatives/friends, 95% of them have accepted our language model and in fact are supportive (some even defenders!). The other 5% of people that either respect but don´t understand or talk constantly about problems that this could cause in the future or the difficulties/barriers that they see, are just jealous. I think they´d either love to do the same with their kids or they wish their parents had done this with them so they´d know another language now.
What I sure can say today is that my son is the living proof that encouraging early bilingualism is by no means detrimental but very positive and stimulating for a baby/toddler AND that it´s possible to carry out such a project being a NON-NATIVE speaker of the targeted language.
The term-end reports from his nursery state that far from being delayed, his speech production is way above the average, and in fact he teaches English words to other same aged kids. He is also doing things that evidence metalinguistic awareness that might be considered advanced for his age, like playing the game of singing a song or speaking with only one vowel, either in English or Spanish. I´ve been told that this is not common for a 2 year old boy, plus it´s really fun hear him singing “tha whaals an tha bas ga raand and raand…” and then with the letter “o” on and on… We are also observing a progressive integration of English on his daily speech, e.g. “Papi don´t pull up the blinds! It´s so bright!”. “Hide under the covers! Mum finds us!”, “Who is crying?” and many other examples. I´d say the level of his English utterances is about 60% -70% of his Spanish, which is way beyond I expected him to be at this age (2years and 2 months old).
Soooo, parents of the world, I firmly recommend you to promote multilingualism among your offspring. Whatever the barriers you think you are going to find, there is always a way and you just have to find the model that works for you. The economic-brain-effort investment is not that high if you live it with passion, and the outcome pays off from the first year and a half, and I think I would dare to say that it´ll be even more rewarding in the years to come.

22 May, 2012

Complex structures

Time flies! Our baby´s 2nd birthday has just passed and we´ve been noticing lately that our little big man has started to produce more structures and more complex ones every day. His utterances in Spanish go as far as 7 or 8 words sentences with several elements (subject, verb, adjectives and objects; e.g. “Mamá se come las natillas de Papa”= “Mum eats Papa´s custard”).  It´s also remarkable that he went from repeating to elaborating his own combinations in 1 or 2 weeks, and he is using the verbs in the right tense and most of the times in the right order depending on the language he is speaking. The tense of the verb is probably not a big deal in English, but Spanish is a different story as we have different forms per tense and person. Also irregular verbs are really out of any logic, but impressively (at least for me) he is doing pretty well so far! I´m not sure whether he is just repeating forms that he learnt from different situations, or he is actually aware at a metalinguistic level. Some sentences during our playtime tell me it´s more of the second. As an example, he was playing the other day with 3 cars (red, purple and green), he took 2 of them into a toy house at the playground, then looked at me and said “Papi, the green one is missing”. In fact the green car was by the slide, and I hadn´t mentioned anything about it, so it was clearly no repetition. We have been taking about “missing things”, like a piece of a toy or a piece of the puzzle recently, so I assume he has figured out what it means and what it is used for.
Following with the complexity subject, I´ve noticed that he responds to complicated (again, in my opinion) sentences in a blink of an eye, almost instantly, even when producing the sentence caused a little brain collapse to this non-native Papi. We Spaniards struggle with structures when the sentence requires changing the “natural Spanish order” of the words. Here are some examples:
-       “Who do you want me to talk to?” The “to” at the end goes at the beginning of the sentence in Spanish, and placing the auxiliary verb and objects is sometimes tricky.
-       “Which toy have you been playing with?” Again the “with” at the end.
-       “In which closet do you want Papi to hide?” The order of the verb and the subject.
When I´m about to say something like this I have to make a short pause (1 or 2 seconds) to make sure that I´m saying it right, yet the little man answers quickly and effortlessly. I must say that whenever I say something that I find complicated, I expect him to find at least a little trouble answering, but for him it´s like if I were asking “which color is this car?” I think this is what makes the difference between acquiring a second language at an early age, and learning it during adulthood.
Despite the above mentioned, not everything goes 100% dreamy, although it´s absolutely normal. Consistent and balanced bilingualism is nothing to expect, according to our exposure pattern. Differences with English start to be significant, as he doesn´t use as many English verbs as in Spanish and his first choice when mum and I are both in the conversation is Spanish. I always repeat everything in English or ask him to say it again because “I didn´t understand…”, and then he switches but again omitting the English verbs or names that he doesn’t have down pat yet. I´ve noticed that he struggles specially with auxiliary verbs, and I think it´s because there is no direct translation from Spanish and structures are simply too different. Example: “Head no fits” is what he says when he is trying to get his head through the bars of the kitchen chairs. I then repeat, “Oh I see, your head seems to be…” – “Too big!!” – “yes! too big, so it DOESN´T fit through these bars” stressing the doesn´t this time, but still the next times he says NO FITS.     
The good news is that he separates his two languages very well from the very beginning, like for example when I tuck him in bed and tell him stories, he starts speaking like a little parrot, all the time in English if it´s me, or in Spanish if it´s mum. AND switching is still on fashion. Sometimes he is just talking to his mum in Spanish and if I come around and look at him, not even with any sign of demanding an English equivalent, he switches and tries an English equivalent, sometimes resulting in funny outcomes like: “The car ES too big, no fits NEL garage”. Following this example, I´ve been observing the following things:
-       I think he drives his attention to the main items of the sentence (car-too big-fit-garage) and provides a sentence keeping all those things clear and in order.
-       The nexus between the important items of the sentence are the ones that he is less focused on, and therefore cause him some hesitation. That´s why he mixes “EN EL” with “IN THE”, and doesn’t use the auxiliary verb, which, as I said before, doesn´t exist in Spanish.
I can also perceive that phrasal verbs confuse him (no wonders! Many times the same effect can be easily observed in Papi!!), and the damn movement verbs (swing away, tip over, topple down, walk along…) are just not natural for a Spanish speaker and many times tricky, so I assume that these things together with my lack of “nativeness” and the limited exposure make things more complicated to start producing quality speech at the same level as he is doing it in Spanish.
Before this phase, no big differences were perceived between dominant and minority language, but according to all the experiences that I have read about, I believe this alternative improvements were meant to happen. Our idea is to keep encouraging English as much as we can, and wait until he starts the bilingual school next September to complement the input with some external resources. Then he´ll have 3 hours a week of daily routines in class in English, and the following year (3,5 years old) he´ll have 50% of the day in English and 50% in Spanish. Even though all his friends at school will be Spanish and therefore the playground language will be Spanish, I think this is much better than nothing, to complete what we do at home, and by far the most affordable vs quality option to promote and encourage bilingualism out of our home.